Escaping Winter's Chill

GORP's Snow-Free National Park Picks

Not all of us are snowbunnies. Come the chill winds of winter, our escape fantasies tend towards leaning against a sun-warmed rock, walking barefoot and carefree along a beach, or witnessing a flower blooming unshielded by panes of glass. Skis, snowshoes, and subzero camping gear? As they say in Brooklyn, fuhgedaboudit!

National parks are perennially favorite destinations. And guess what—most are open year-round. For some national parks, winter can be the preferred time to visit—temperatures are milder and crowds thinner. Winter can even offer a new, intriguing view of parks that are known as summertime favorites.

But finding an enjoyable snow-free national park in winter takes a little strategy. . .

Go to the tropics. This is a no-brainer, except for being wary of hurricanes. Good news: Hurricane season ends in November. So if palm trees are shading your dreams lately, you can hardly go wrong with a vacation at Virgin Islands or Hawaii's Haleakala national parks.

Go the deserts. Summer can be dangerously searing in the desert. But in winter, daytime temperatures calm down, and if you go in late winter or spring, you'll be treated to the sight of the desert in bloom—always an uplifting experience. Big Bend National Park and Mojave National Preserve top our list.

Go to low elevation, southerly forests. This is a subtler proposition than the tropics or the deserts. The strategy here is to experience the forest parks at a quieter time of year. The songbirds have departed, and so have the caravans of RVs. You may see snow when you gaze towards higher elevations, but you won't be trudging through it, and you can keep your tire chains stowed in the trunk. Great Smoky Mountains is our pick for a park transformed by fallen leaves and vanished crowds.

While all of our park picks can be explored in many different ways, they each have an activity that explores their essence. The coral reefs of the Virgin Islands can be experienced by even the most novice snorkeler. Haleakala's high, mythical reaches put you close to the stars. The Rio Grande's turn at Big Bend is a paddler's delight. Mojave National Preserve's trackless expanse is best experienced by wandering on foot. And boundless views appear through the leafless trees of winter along the byways of Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

So let the snowbunnies revel in their drifts of monochromatic crystals. Let's head for where the ground is still visible.

Published: 28 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 7 Nov 2011
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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